Quite literally, Champion Stadium is the Disney World of spring training stadiums.
Part of the famed resort’s Wide World of Sports Complex, the stadium is distinctively different among its Grapefruit League competition and much of that has to do with Disney and its ambitious plans for the 220-acre sports complex, of which Champion Stadium has been the centerpiece since both opened in 1997. A year later, the Braves moved their spring training operations from West Palm Beach to Disney and into a stadium that is as beautiful as they come.
Designed in the Spanish Mission-style of architecture, Champion Stadium is gorgeous inside and out. It’s the only true double-decked stadium in the Grapefruit League and features towers, arched entrances and a stucco finished facade. All visible stucco is shaded yellow while everything else – steel, seats, roof tiles, padding and walls – is colored green.
Fans approach the picturesque stadium from beyond left field, where the parking lot is located. Nearby, palm trees and the Disney’s Wide World of Sports globe mark the beginning of a paved walkway that extends to the stadium’s main and sole entrance behind home plate. Along the way, fans are tempted by tents set up on either side of the walkway that sell souvenirs.
Strategically placed next to the ticket office, the “D Sports” store offers fans even more souvenir options prior to entering the stadium. Both were built on the underside of the patio on the stadium’s left field concourse.
When fans finally make their way to the turnstiles, they are greeted and admitted by Disney employees wearing referee uniforms. Upon entering the stadium, fans are confronted by yet another opportunity to buy souvenirs as Disney’s Clubhouse, the Braves’ main team shop, is found just inside of the entrance.
To avoid entering Disney’s Clubhouse fans turn right or left into attractive corridors that serve as the outer concourse of the lower level. Concession stands and bathrooms are built into the backside of the wall that separates the outer concourse from the inner concourse, which rings around the last row of seats in the lower grandstand and is open to the playing field.
The inner concourse is too narrow on the third base side of the ballpark to serve as anything other than a walkway, but it’s much more expansive on the first base side, enabling fans to congregate there and allowing for food and beverage carts to be set up in full view of the playing field. The specialty concession stands on the first base side of the park, however, have no view of the field, as they are placed outside the stadium’s exterior wall in a fenced-in area close to the neighboring Milk House arena.
Staircases lead to the upper level, which has an enclosed concourse with its own concessions and bathrooms. The upper level is neither an afterthought nor the exclusive domain of premium seating, as it holds a sizeable amount of the stadium’s fixed seats, all of which are between the first and third base bags. Seats on both levels lack cup holders, while a handful of seats in the upper deck are obstructed by support beams and camera platforms.
The upper deck has a unique trellised roof but it’s more aesthetically pleasing than it is functional, as the stadium faces south and the springtime sun is in the southern sky. The upper deck itself is responsible for most of the shade found in the ballpark, as it overhangs the lower level and its double concourse.
Champion Stadium has four luxury boxes and two open-air suites on its upper level to compliment the patios found on its lower level, which are on open-air concourses that begin where the stadium’s grandstand ends. Multiple tents for private parties are erected on the patio of the right field concourse, while a single picnic tent stands on the smaller left field concourse. Both concourses offer plenty of standing room for fans that like to move about the stadium.
Six sections of bleachers extend down the right field line, tapering up towards the foul pole. Next to the foul pole and elevated behind the right field wall is the Braves bullpen. The visitors’ bullpen is cut into the berm down the left field line.
The largest of its kind in the Grapefruit League, the berm at Champion Stadium begins just past the third base dugout and extends all the way to left-center field. Fans can sit comfortably in the gently sloped berm down the left field line. Those opting for the steeper hill in left field find themselves far away from the action and are forced to sit on the upper half of the hill, which extends down to the outfield wall. Views from the lower half of the hill are obstructed by the left field wall.
The outfield walls are absent of any advertising. Instead, 16 metallic pennants on the crest of the left field berm are adorned with logos and names of sponsors. The multi-colored pennants are both charming and fitting given the environment. They also serve their purpose quite well, as the pennants are more noticeable, yet less obtrusive than the billboards that are plastered on the outfield walls at other spring training ballparks.
The batter’s eye in center field is a three part structure that was designed to be unusually long to obscure the batting cage building behind it. The hitter’s background is flanked on its right by an edifice that supports ad banners and on its left by a large scoreboard.
While it lacks a video panel, the scoreboard does include space for a miles-per-hour (MPH) readout of each thrown pitch and the spring training batting average for each hitter. Both of those essential regular season statistics are rarely found at a spring training ballpark. The scoreboard is also loaded with fireworks and whether the Braves win or lose a post-game fireworks display follows the final out.
The fireworks show is the grand finale of the Disney choreographed entertainment that takes place throughout the game. And make no mistake, a Braves game at Champion Stadium is a Disney production from start to finish, complete with between innings entertainment and contests that rival those found at Major League ballparks.
If Champion Stadium has a flaw it's that it feels too much like a miniature Major League ballpark. Ticket prices are higher than normal and coupled with the size of the stadium and the game presentation, it lacks the setting and pace normally associated with spring training.
Walt Disney World is the most visited resort in the world and part of the reason for the stadium's size - it's the second largest in the Grapefruit League - is to accommodate the tourists that prefer Mickey Mouse to Mickey Mantle, a reminder that baseball is but one offering in the conglomerate's family-friendly arsenal.
For spring training fans that adds up to a different experience, but the good news is that it occurs in a first class facility that benefits from Disney's magic touch. All that's missing, ironically, is a play area for kids.
Location and Parking
Champion Stadium is at the southern edge of the Walt Disney World Resort, which is actually located in the city of Lake Buena Vista, a municipality of five square miles that borders Orlando and has been owned by The Walt Disney Company since it was incorporated in 1967.
The stadium is the featured attraction of Disney's Wide World of Sports, which opened in 1997 and includes numerous venues for other sports in addition to the Baseball Quadraplex, a four field complex built between Champion Stadium and I-4. Both the practice fields and Interstate are visible from the upper deck. The Milk House arena and Disney's Wide World of Sports Cafe were modeled after Champion Stadium and the three buildings are arranged so that their entrances are about 100 feet from each other.
Parking is plentiful and free. The spaces not reserved as handicapped in the paved lot behind left field fill up early, so most fans park in the expansive grass field behind the paved lot. For those who insist on paying to park, a $20 valet service is available. Everyone else gets to enjoy the only free parking found at a ballpark in the Grapefruit League.
Ballpark and Wide World of Sports History
The ballpark now known as Champion Stadium had no official name when it hosted its inaugural game on March 28, 1997. On that Friday evening the Atlanta Braves beat the Cincinnati Reds 9-7 before a crowd of 9,056. It was the only game the Braves played at Disney that spring. Two days prior, they had played their finale in West Palm Beach, a place where the team had trained since their Milwaukee days.
To lure the Braves to their resort, Disney spent $100 million on a sports complex they dubbed their Wide World of Sports. The sprawling 220-acre wonderland replaced swampland and the Braves gave the complex instant recognition when they become a full-time tenant in 1998.
Casually known as the Ballpark at Disney's Wide World of Sports, it was rebranded Cracker Jack Stadium in October of 2002 after Frito-Lay agreed to a sponsorship and marketing deal that covered all of Disney's Florida and California parks.
Two weeks prior to accepting money from Frito-Lay, Disney doled out an undisclosed sum to two men that had sued them. Nicholas Stracick and Edward Russell of All Pro Sports Camps had been awarded $240 million by an Orange County jury on August 11, 2000 after lawyers for the pair successfully argued that Disney stole their idea for a sports-themed park.
Stracick, an umpire, and Russell, an architect, had met with Disney in 1987 to share their vision of a complex they called Sports Island. After having their idea rejected, they later sued Disney for $1.6 billion in damages, claiming the world's second largest media company had essentially stolen the concept for the Wide World of Sports from them. Disney appealed the reduced number that the six-member jury awarded and the two sides finally settled the suit on September 24, 2002.
Whoever came up with the idea, there can be no debate that the Wide World of Sports has been a success. Thanks in part to a partnership with the Amateur Athletic Union (AAU), nearly two million youth athletes competed at one of the complex's many venues in the first decade of its existence. The AAU is headquartered and holds nearly one-third of its 250 national championships at the complex, which was rebranded the ESPN Wide World of Sports in 2009. ESPN has been a subsidiary of Disney since 1996.
As for the stadium that remains the centerpiece of the constantly evolving complex, it was rebranded itself in 2007 after Hanesbrands Inc. secured naming rights throughout Disney's properties and decided to promote its Champion brand of athletic apparel by attaching its name to the spring training home of the Braves. The deal is for 10 years, which will cover the final half of the team's original 20-year lease.